Science And Poetry

From Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself (an exploration of neuroplasticity, in this case the curious fact that nerve supply to one body part can amalgamate with nerve supply to a part that has been severed):

Not all phantom [limbs] are painful. After Ramachandran published his discoveries, amputees began to seek him out. Several leg amputees reported, with much shame,* that when they had sex, they often experienced their orgasms in their phantom legs and feet. One man confessed that because his leg and foot were so much larger than his genitals, the orgasm was “much bigger” than it used to be. Though such patients might once have been dismissed as having overly large imaginations, Ramachandran argued that the claim made perfect neuroscientific sense. The Penfield brain map shows the genitals next to the feet, and since the feet no longer receive input, the genital maps likely invade the foot maps, so when the genitals experience pleasure, so do the phantom feet.

From John Donne’s Elegy XVIII, Loves Progress:

Rather set out below; practise my art.
Some symetry the foot hath with that part
Which thou dost seek, and is thy map for that,
Lovely enough to stop, but not stay at;
Least subject to disguise and change it is—
Men say the devil never can change his.
It is the emblem that hath figured
Firmness; ’tis the first part that comes to bed.
Civility we see refined; the kiss
Which at the face began, transplanted is,
Since to the hand, since to the imperial knee,
Now at the papal foot delights to be:
If kings think that the nearer way, and do
Rise from the foot, lovers may do so too.

I’ve always said science majors were too damn quick to bag on the liberal arts people. John Donne, 1572-1631.

* I am a bit suspicious of Doidge’s attribution of shame. His chapter on pain-pleasure overlap, as observed in even mild spanky forms of sadomasochism, is heavy with use of the words “pervert” and “perversion.” I sense a certain orthoerotic primness. Feh.


6 thoughts on “Science And Poetry

  1. That sounds like a really fascinating book — and yes, I agree that there’s a lot more actual truth in good literature than science is usually willing to admit. Most people could save years of time and money in therapy by just really reading, for example, Middlemarch .

  2. This is why (around some people) my knees buckle. Great sensation! No shame.

    Harold Bloom says that Shakespeare renders Freud irrelevant. Between the two of them (Shakespeare and Freud–we’ll leave Bloom out of this), Will is the one who makes my knees buckle.

  3. And, now, thinking about Shakespeare and Mr. Rochester’s (wow! He’s “Mr. Rochester”!) remark about truth in good literature, I remembered this poem:

    In Shakespeare
    James Richardson

    In Shakespeare a lover turns into an ass
    as you would expect. People confuse
    their consciences with ghosts and witches.
    Old men throw everything away
    because they panic and can’t feel their lives.
    They pinch themselves, pierce themselves with twigs,
    cliffs, lightning, and die–yes, finally–in glad pain.

    You marry a woman you’ve never talked to,
    a woman you thought was a boy.
    Sixteen years go by as a curtain billows
    once, twice. Your children are lost,
    they come back, you don’t remember how.
    A love turns to a statue in a dress, the statue
    comes back to life. Oh God, it’s all so realistic
    I can’t stand it. Whereat I weep and sing.

    Such a relief, to burst from the theatre
    into our cool, imaginary streets
    where we know who’s who and what’s what,
    and command with Metrocards our destinations.
    Where no one with a story struggling in him
    convulses as it eats its way out,
    and no one in an antiseptic corridor,
    or in deserts or in downtown darkling plains,
    staggers through an Act that just will not end,
    eyes burning with the burning of the dead.

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